If Richard Fausset’s article in The New York Times—“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland”—is to be taken at face value, it appears that neo-Nazis are exactly like you and me. They register for wedding gifts. They listen to NPR. They watch “Seinfeld” reruns. The irony of being drawn to “Seinfeld” was not lost on Tony Hovater, the neo-Nazi subject of Fausset’s piece. “I guess it seems weird when talking about these types of things,” he’s quoted as saying in the article. “You know, I’m coming at it in a mid-90s, Jewish, New York, observational-humor way.”
That might have been the moment for the reporter to ask his subject how he reconciles his love of “Seinfeld” with his assertion that Jews run the media and the banks, and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.”
But he didn’t.
I’m no stranger to this lukewarm dose of white supremacy. I’ve written for JewishBoston about my five-year tenure at the Anti-Defamation League monitoring what we called in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s right-wing extremists. I was a research assistant in the organization’s civil rights department, which has transformed into the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. I used to write reports based on reading actual right-wing newspapers and other hate-filled material that I picked up at a mail drop. Keeping track of hate groups got a needed upgrade in Trump’s America.
Thirty years ago the alt-right was more of an oddity, a rag-tag army of ineffective racists who barely made a dent in America’s population. Like Hovater, these people also had jobs and families, but they seemed more fanatical and in many cases more ridiculous. Being ardent foot soldiers for the cause impoverished them economically. What makes Hovater so menacing is that he appears to be solidly middle class and even-keeled. In the Times article, he describes himself as a white nationalist, not a white supremacist. Linger on that sentence for a moment. To begin to distinguish between these two terms gives him pseudo-legitimacy he must never have.
In the last two decades, the haters have found a hospitable host for their ranting on the internet. Over time they have become more voluble, more public and the Times article did nothing to change that. According to the Times, Hovater posted a picture on his Facebook page of what the United States might have looked like if Germany won. It’s a happy place full of white people strolling down a Main Street adorned with swastikas. I tried to see the picture for myself, but my guess is that all this attention has Hovater adjusting his privacy settings for friends only.
Who exactly his friends are is a bit of a mystery. The 29-year-old welder, who lives in a Dayton, Ohio, suburb, was once a drummer in a heavy-metal band. He says he tipped over into extremist behavior when he was on the road with his band and saw people in desperate straits in places like Appalachia and up and down the East Coast. He explained he was once a libertarian until he perceived the movement as moving leftward. From there he co-founded a neo-Nazi group called the Traditionalist Worker Party.
At the risk of having ads for the group show up on my Facebook feed, I went to the website. It was boilerplate hate that may have been slightly more grammatical than the mimeographed trash I once read as part of my job. But it aptly reflects the drivel Hovater told the Times. The number of Jews who died in the Holocaust was inflated. Hitler was just “a guy who really believed in his cause. He really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.”
What’s different this time about these right-wing extremists? For one thing, a lackluster racist wouldn’t have several column inches devoted to him in the paper of record. Fausset admits that Hovater “is not a star among the resurgent radical American right.”
In a separate piece for the Times in which he reflects on his article, Fausset declares, “There is a hole at the heart of my story about Tony Hovater, the white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.” He admits that his editor at the Times told him that he had not addressed what made Tony Hovater tick. He went back to Hovater and asked more questions, which in the end were not answered. “Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader,” Fausset wrote.
In his weak apology, Fausset assumed there was a soul to plumb. He may have thought the accretion of details in his story could have presented an explanation for Hovater’s extremism. And it might have if Fausset had pushed back even a little. But in the end, this was a workaday profile of a guy who happens to be a neo-Nazi. Fausset never discovers where things went twisted and poisoned for Hovater. And I find myself in the grudging position of giving Hovater more airtime to dispute how the Times covered him.
Twitter and Facebook rightfully exploded with outrage over what amounts to a puff piece. Bess Kalb, a writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” proved that the truth needs to be shocking when dealing with hatemongers. It needs to jolt reporter and reader alike out of a dazed complacency.
Kalb tweeted: “You know who had nice manners? The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony. Too much? Exactly. That’s how you write about Nazis.”